Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Farmers matter

It has been more than a couple of days since the Maharashtra Chief Minister made the stunning announcement that he had asked Deepika Padukone to help farmers deal with stress. I am still to recover from the sense of shock and disbelief.

One reads about the plight of farmers and turns a blind eye to it. One hears about their suffering and chooses to pay no attention. One takes no action whatsoever —-minor or significant —to ameliorate their suffering. One does not even spare a fleeting thought for the farmer ‘s misery when one sits down at a food laden table or throws away a half eaten pizza. One decides that one is dealing with enough stress living a fast paced metropolitan life to bother about farmers’ issues, and in any case, one is doing one’s bit by talking about corruption and planting trees and composting organic waste at home and volunteering money or time to schools for under privileged children etc etc.

Or one does talk about farm policy —— perhaps in social media —— and refers to the need to rapidly industrialize so that farmers can make the transition from being impoverished, monsoon and subsidy dependent “entities” to those integrated in the industrialized economy. One does not delve into the question whether such integration is indeed possible for the huge numbers of small and marginal farmers and farm labour that we are grappling with. One does not look at the statistics which reveal that our so called growth story is all about GDP growth, and bereft of growth in employment opportunities. Or the statistics which say that the job opportunities have arisen only in the unorganised, services sector so that when a distressed farmer migrates to a city, he finds a job only as a construction site worker or a security guard or a delivery boy, with no safeguards regarding conditions or benefits of work. One forgets that when a farmer migrates, he leaves his family behind, and lives a lonely and loveless life. If he brings his family along, they struggle to survive in an alien environment , are over whelmed by an entirely different culture which makes them feel small and under values their traditional knowledge and skills and mocks at their values. One forgets that migration in large numbers invariably results in a very material loss to the culture, dialect and way of life that perhaps had been sustained by agriculture for centuries, including loss of crop and animal varieties, traditional remedies for illnesses, folk lore, stories and ballads passed down through oral tradition etc.

Perhaps the ignorance of city dwellers is forgivable, or one might take the view that they ought to make more effort to educate themselves since they have the time and the resources —-the farmer is, after all, more important than the chap who builds your cars or the one who arranges your foreign vacations.

What is completely unforgivable is a statement from a Chief Minister, ascribing farmer suicides to an inability to cope with stress, and doling out a Bollywood actress as the antidote. The statement makes a trifle of the myriad challenges that farmers face, none of which are of their own making. It mocks at their inability to get loans at reasonable rates ( while multi billionaires happily walk away with write offs of bad loans which loans had been extended at easy terms) and their consequent dependence on money lenders. It mocks at their inability to get fair prices for their produce because the government ensures that food prices are kept low. It mocks at their inability to switch to crops more suited to the topography because the little institutional support that is forthcoming is targeted at crops that benefit not the farmer but the traders and mill owners. It mocks at their inability to question why the government has not drought proofed agriculture despite thousands of crores having ostensibly been spent on irrigation facilities.

What does the Chief Minister envisage? A helpline that an impoverished farmer will call when a sudden hailstorm destroys his crops? A letter to Deepika Padukone when strong winds lay flat a crop ready to harvest ? A text message when the money lender knocks at his door? A Facebook post when he can no longer feed his family or educate his children? A tweet when the monetary compensation that the government had promised fails to arrive or is such a paltry sum as to make him despair? And Deepika Padukone will graciously give some Zen like answers, soothe frayed nerves, make the problem momentarily disappear so that the farmer forgets that he is in dire financial straits and postpones death by suicide to another day ?

I would laugh at the Chief Minister’s proposed solution if the fate of the Indian farmer were not so tragic.

If this is the manner in which the political establishment is treating our annadaata, do you not agree that it is time that we, the privileged middle class, took up cudgels on behalf of our beleaguered brethren? Is it not time that we educated ourselves as to what ails Indian agriculture and what the solutions are? Is it not time that we succumbed to a twinge of conscience when we sit down thrice a day at tables heavy with nutritious, life giving food that has been grown, perhaps, at the cost of someone’s life?

Freedom matters

Is there any less freedom of expression today than there was, say, a year ago? Is there more pressure to conform to a cultural “norm” dictated by some ? Is there greater danger attached to speaking one’s mind regardless of whether or not what one says is acceptable to the “monitors”?

My own reluctant but honest answer to these questions is a resounding Yes. I, at least, am much more circumspect today in what I say in the public realm. I will not say that I have completely crumbled, but without a shadow of doubt, I am not as careless of the consequences as I once was. It happens often that I begin writing a Facebook status, and then delete it —-lurking somewhere is the apprehension that I or my family may have to pay a heavy price for my forthrightness. I am ashamed to confess that I have begun to moderate what I write, and it is something that fills me with self abnegation.

When I first began to write blogposts and Facebook status critical of the government policy or laws or programs or particular Ministers or the bureaucracy, I was warned by many well wishers that I could run afoul of the Conduct Rules and could face disciplinary action for such outspokenness. Let the government try, was my quick response. I write in my capacity as a citizen of India, not as a government employee. The government cannot snatch the fundamental right of freedom of expression, guaranteed by the Constitution, by citing the Conduct Rules which apply only when I express an opinion in my capacity as a government employee. Any other interpretation of the Conduct Rules would mean that effectively speaking, crores of government employees do not enjoy a very basic fundamental right. I was convinced that my interpretation of the Conduct Rules was right and determined that I would go to the court, if I needed to, and seek clarification. I still am confident that the Conduct Rules are not intended to deprive government employees of their fundamental right of freedom of expression , but I am far less certain today whether the only consequence of outspokenness I will face is initiation of disciplinary proceedings. Could it be a mob outside my home? Could it be someone who decides that I ought to be punished by waylaying my son? I live in a secure, upscale neighbourhood —–and yet, I confess that I am a little scared.

My thoughts then turn to those who do NOT live in the midst of such security. How can they possibly have the courage to speak out? Would they not fear for their homes and families? Would they not decide that discretion is the better part of valour? Would such involuntary surrender to the cultural police not make them seethe inside and erode their capacity to be good citizens?

Why should I speak of a mob alone, as if the illiterate, or the impoverished, or the dis empowered alone are snatching at the opportunity to assert superiority and crush dissent ? Even my educated friends and colleagues have decided in large numbers that we must re discover and re live the past and if in order to do so, certain communities must face suppression then so they must. Humanity as a notion, brotherhood, universal peace, tolerance —– these seem to be fast becoming out dated notions, to be replaced by an aggressive and strident tone: we WERE the best culture there ever was, we ARE the best culture there is, so fall in line or else. It is discomfiting, to say the least —–but still, a far cry from the actual threat to one’s life and property that many in this nation are today facing if they disagree with this line of thinking.

In the nearly two months that I have been back in office, I am growing more and more convinced that my calling lies elsewhere and that I cannot waste the remaining productive years of my life pushing files and attending futile meetings. It seems almost certain that I will seek voluntary retirement and devote my time and resources to actual nation building. That near-decision has made me even more circumspect in my speech because the procedure of quitting the government can be painless or long drawn out and infinitely painful, as the government pleases —– and so I must , I sub consciously feel, please the government till the procedural requirements are wrapped up. I had not entertained that anxiety a couple of years ago when the government’s obduracy in not processing my application for leave had made me seriously consider the option of voluntary retirement.

Upon careful reflection, therefore, I conclude that there IS something in the air which is vitiating an a common Indian’s fundamental right of freedom of expression. It is not a figment of the imagination of the 50 or so writers who have returned their honours and awards.


The Poverty of Hearts

About a fortnight ago, I read a Facebook status about an initiative by a group of Gurgaon residents to launch in Gurgaon what they called a Food Bank —- a place where home made meals pledged by residents would be collected and then distributed to slum children on a daily basis.

The idea is simple.

Gurgaon is , by any standard, an extremely affluent city, but in the midst of all the affluence are pockets of heart rending poverty —-urban slums that house those who have migrated from villages in search of a livelihood and have found employment as construction site workers, household help, gardeners, security guards, trash collectors, rickshaw pullers etc. They live in tiny spaces, and do not have access to either safe drinking water or proper sanitation facilities. Many of them get to eat just one proper meal a day, one, because they cannot afford to spend more on food ( they have to send money back home ) and two, because their long hours of work and cramped living spaces mean that they do not have the time or the inclination to cook. The children of such migrant workers sometimes attend NGO run schools ( government schools are non existent or non functional) but are mostly to be seen either whiling away their time in slums or begging on the roadside. These children, deprived as they are of safe drinking water, proper sanitation facilities, education, and nutritious food are an integral part of our nation’s future. If they are not educated/skilled and healthy, does the nation’s future not look bleak? Or do we imagine that the nation will be run by the handful of children who graduate from IITs and IIMs and land jobs in MNCs? Will they even know what the real issues are that confront the large part of our population? Equally important, when a large majority of children are neither well fed nor schooled, do we expect them to have any sense of belongingness or pride in the nation? Can we look to them for the task of nation building when we have let them down so badly as to keep them deprived of the very necessities of a dignified life? Are they not vulnerable to taking up lives of crime ? Is that the kind of urban reality we wish to create where affluence is constantly threatened by anomic crime?

I am not privy to the thinking which went into the food bank initiative, but i was happy to read about it and to immediately pledge at least two freshly prepared meals every day. With a great deal of enthusiasm, I shared details of the initiative on Facebook —–on my page, and in groups ( some of which have members running into 1000s). I wrote to the group e mail id of the plush neighbourhood where I live and where none of the 1000 odd families has less than two cars per familyand many are billionaires many times over.

When I found that the response was disappointing, I shared again —-and again, and again. The number of meals pledged in a rather upscale area of Gurgaon with roughly 10 neighbourhoods varies between 60 and 70 every day. The minuscule number is enough to break one’s heart. This is a geographic area where literally thousands and thousands of families live, order their pizzas and ice cream cakes, buy Audis and BMWs, splurge on designer wear and expensive watches, send their children to schools that charge 3 to 4 times the tuition fees of an average’ school .

Yet, their response to a plea to pledge a meal ( just one meal) is nearly absent. It is not as if the lady of the house would even have to cook the extra meal. Most of these are households that employ household help. An extra meal will not be an expense that cannot be borne. The meal does not even have to be transferred anywhere,Food Bank’s volunteers pick it up every morning and visit slums where children now eagerly await their arrival. Photographs are shared every day so we know we are not being duped and that the food is reaching the intended recipient. The look of joy on the faces of the children who get a wholesome, stomach filling meal would gladden any heart. I would think it would make even the hardest heart melt melt enough to resolve to pledge a meal. If that happened, no one would sleep hungry in Gurgaon.

For several days now, I have tried to figure out what explains the indifference, the apathy. It is not as if we were talking of the distress of farmers living hundreds or thousands of kilometres away. We are not talking of the hardship that adivasis undergo —-we neither understand their way of life nor their culture, are prone to treating both as inferior”and therefore easily dismiss their problems from our mind.

These children, however, we encounter everyday —-on the roadsides, outside shopping malls, near the Metro, rag picking in empty plots. They are right there in front of our eyes, and we know they belong to the men and women who build our houses, keep them clean and green and secure, take away the trash, and perform a hundred other services such as plumbing and painting and telephone connection repairs and tailoring and fruit vending. The list goes o and on. Yet we are not moved enough by the hungry stomachs of these children to take the baby step of pledging a meal.

Is it that no matter how rich we may be, we suffer from poverty of hearts ?

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Delhi NCR haze: action is good, informed action is better

Delhi NCR is covered by a thick haze. Visibility is low, flights are being postponed, traffic has slowed down on roads as well. The air smells acrid, and is irritating the eyes and the throat. For those vulnerable in any manner ----children, the elderly, the sick ---- the effects are particularly worrisome. The particulate levels have reached alarmingly high levels, and on social media, there are anguished posts about the compromised quality of life. As always, there are a handful of people who have decided to more than just voice their anguish. They will gather at a public place, and make enough noise to be heard by the State and Central governments ---- but to what avail? When citizen demands are generic, the promises are vague and their implementation difficult to monitor. 

Most of us discussing and debating the subject are not experts. We do not know for certain what is responsible for this deadly haze. Is it vehicular pollution? The huge amounts of fire crackers burst during Diwali week ? The noxious practice of burning waste ? Burning of crop stubble? All of these? 

As citizens, we should demand answers from the innumerable bodies whose job it is to have the answers. Pollution is not a recent phenomenon. In the decades that we have tried to minimise, prevent and tackle pollution, government agencies must have collected mountains of data on the different sources of air pollution. They must also have a fair idea of the solutions, and their relative costs and benefits. Why then is the government silent? Why does it not tell us what the magnitude and contours of the problem are. The battle cannot succeed unless we know the monster we are battling. Does the monster eat animals or grass? Are there certain times of the year that the monster hibernates? Is it easier to render him harmless then ? Or does the monster never stop , so that our attack has to be relentless and ceaseless? 

Perhaps the government remains silent because a well informed citizen is much more likely to demand accountability than an ignorant citizen. If you knew, for example, that the contribution of vehicular pollution to the haze Delhi NCR finds itself enveloped in is many, many times more than that of Diwali fire crackers, would you not focus on demanding mass transport? As matters rest, we do not know, and therefore we lurch from one cause to another, and can never quite gain the momentum to make the government provide long term solutions.

The burning of crop stubble, for example, is something that we only complain about as urban dwellers. What is crop stubble? Why do farmers burn it? Is there no other economical method for removing the crop stubble ? If we suffer adverse health consequences even at a distance, do the village communities not suffer as well? If they do, why do they not switch to another method ? When I tried to find out the answers to these questions, I got the following reply from farm policy analyst, Devinder Sharma:

" If it was economical, farmers would have done it. This is actually a problem created by technology. Harvester-combines leave around 8-9 inches of the stalk while harvesting. But no one is asking the companies to build suitable machines or take care of the problem that the technology has left behind. The solution to the problem of stubble burning lies with the technology makers.They must be asked to clean up. "

From another citizen concerned with the air pollution caused by crop stubble burning, I got to know that a different solution has been successfully attempted in Fazilka, Punjab. Vikram Aditya Ahuja's startup venture has trained educated unemployed youth, imparted training, and given them requisite equipment like Bailer, Rake, Reaper and Trollies. More than 1000 young farming entrepreneurs, covering most of the villages in Fazilka and Mukatsar district, now collect straw from nearby villages and then bundled straw is sent to nearest thermal plant & cardboard factories to produce electricity and cardboard respectively. They also make the fields ready for direct seeding of the new crop.As a result, for two years in succession, there has been no crop stubble burning in these places.

Armed with this information, I and others like me can ask the government why it does not create an environment conducive to the replication of the Fazilka model in other districts of Punjab and Haryana where crop stubble is being burnt. In this manner, urban dwellers can cease to look at farmers as either ignorant or callous, and the two can become partners in tackling pollution. Such partnerships are not what make governments happy. When groups/communities bridge their differences and find common ground, they are more difficult to fool, more difficult to divide, less amenable to being passive vote banks. 

So, let us not simply complain about the smog. Let us not simply join protest assemblies ( these serve a very useful , but limited, purpose). Let us demand information, and then demand concrete, specific action. When we practice advocacy, let us be armed with all the pertinent information when we do that. 

Action is good, informed action is better. 

rule of law and staged encounters

Eight men are dead and their photographs have been widely shared over social media and newspapers/TV channels. 

We are a country ruled by law. The law says that persons accused of a crime —-whether it is cheating or trespass or murder or a terrorist act —-must be produced before a court of law to decide whether or not they are guilty of the crime. The police must collect and present before the court all evidence that it can gather to establish that the accused are indeed guilty of the crime they are accused of. The court must look at the evidence, and also give an opportunity to the accused to rebut the evidence. If the court finds that the evidence is insufficient, it must discharge/acquit the accused. It is only when the evidence produced before the court is considered by it to have established beyond doubt the guilt of the accused that the court convicts the accused . The court then decides the sentence as per the provisions of the law. Once again, it hears both sides before making a decision. It takes into consideration extenuating factors, if any, or aggravating factors, if any. Very rarely is the death sentence pronounced. As in other parts of the world, the death sentence is being gradually phased out in India, and though it continues to remain on the statute books, the Supreme Court has, in a series of judgments , laid down very stringent conditions which must be met before a person pronounced guilty of a crime is sentenced to death. In effect, therefore, the death sentence is pronounced only in the “rarest of rare ” cases, and after careful deliberation by the court.

Once an accused has been pronounced guilty of a crime by a court of law, and sentenced to punishment as per the provisions of IPC or other relevant law, he has recourse to several appellate remedies. He can approach the higher courts, right up to the Supreme Court. If he fails to get relief from the courts, he can file a mercy petition before the President of India. It is only when all these options have been exhausted that, in cases where the death sentence has been pronounced, the person found guilty of a crime will be executed by the State.

Since the Constitution of India assures to citizens the fundamental right to life, including the right to dignity, the convicted person is executed as per prescribed procedure, and it is ensured that his dignity is not violated, nor that of his family and friends.

What happens in staged encounters is a violation of all the Constitutional and legal provisions that ensure that no one will lose his life except as per the process set out by law. The police authorities assume the role of prosecutor, judge, and executioner, and on the basis of their own judgement of the evidence that they have themselves collected , they deprive an accused of his life, and in death, he is made to lose his dignity as well, as gory pictures are splashed all over mass media.

Some proffer the explanation that “terrorists” deserve no better. This a facetious argument because the law of the land does not distinguish between categories of suspects —– it lays down the same procedures, and makes available the same appellate remedies, no matter what the nature of the crime. Are we to let the police authorities decide that a particular crime is worse than others, and needs to be dealt with by suspending due procedures? The consequences of such an approach would be horrendous —– who will police the police? Who will decide where the police authorities will draw a line ? If the police can contemptuously toss aside Constitutional and legal provisions that ensure that no person loses his life or liberty except by due process, and not suffer the consequences, there is no knowing the extent to which such power can be abused.

Terrorism is a huge challenge for our nation. So are female foeticide and atrocities against Dalits and adivasis. These are crimes which evoke very strong emotional responses. However, passion cannot dictate the response of the State to crimes, no matter how horrendous. The State must at all times act within the confines of law. If this dictum erodes, so does the rule of law in all other aspects of our life.

As a nation, we are already confronted with crumbling institutions, unmet aspirations, and social turmoil. We cannot afford to add to this mix a contempt for the law by the very agencies that are tasked to uphold the law , without inviting a very bleak future for the nation.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016


the house that my father built
lies desolate
weeds have run over
the flower beds
the fruit trees
are barren
someone smashed
the window glasses
and wind rushes in
and rain water
and birds
that do not find
shelter elsewhere
the walls that
stood high and proud
have crumbled
the Ashoka trees
alone remind
one of the glorious
dreams the house was built upon
he lived there but a year
or two
and then passed on
and I often wonder
as I go about
setting my
house in order
how soon before
another house
another dream
dust to dust
ashes to ashes
how fragile are
the foundations we
build our lives on
if impermanence were
the first lesson
in school
would our lives
be any different ?

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

a room with a view ---- 1

As I swivel in my newly upholstered chair, a green canopy fills my field of vision. On even a dark and cold day, it is a sight designed to soothe frazzled nerves. On warm, sunny days. it energizes. I lean back in my chair and wonder at the destiny which brought me to a secure job, a comfortable office, a smooth ride from home to work in the splendid solitude of a chauffeur - driven car, all at the cost of an 8 hour work day which may or may not entail actual work. 

On my way to the office, I look out of the window and see office goers sitting or standing with drooping shoulders at bus stops, an expression of resignation on their faces. I wonder whether I  have the same emotion buried deep inside ---- one of resignation (to a dreary but secure job that has many perquisites). I wonder too why the apparent difference in our material positions makes no difference so far as our attitude towards work is concerned. Why do those who wait at bus stops and those who cruise by look equally unhappy  on their way to work? It must be the work itself which creates the discontent ---- absence of work, or too much work, or meaningless work or repetitive work.

Should an office-goer even be discontented? Is he not so much more fortunate than those who literally carry the weight of their work on their shoulders and backs , whether they be farmers or construction labour or rickshaw pullers ? 

It depends, I suppose, on what meaning one ascribes to work. Is work merely a means to earning a livelihood, or is the means to realising one's potential? If it is the latter, is even a minuscule percentage of office goers successful in achieving that goal ? That  being the case, is the expression of resignation any surprise?